COLUMBIA — Eight of South Carolina's tiniest school districts are collectively seeking more than $210 million from the state to consolidate into four larger — but still rather small — districts.
That is four times more than what legislators allotted as a carrot for small school districts in the poorest counties to merge on their own before they're potentially forced by the state.
Districts added new buildings and schools and requested consultant fees, school buses, and security cameras in their plans to combine.
Wish list items certain to be scratched include:
- $8.5 million for a new administration building in Bamberg County for a combined district with less than 2,000 students.
- $450,000 to either pay severance or keep as consultants the top administrators from Bamberg and Denmark schools who lose their job.
- $60.2 million for a new pre-K through 12th grade school in Williston.
- $2.1 million for consultants and attorneys to assist with the consolidations in Bamberg, Barnwell, Clarendon and Hampton counties.
"We did tell the participants to dream big," state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman said. "(But) a good dose of common sense is going to have to come into play. The money is not going to be used for the eyebrow-raisers."
House Speaker Jay Lucas, who has spearheaded efforts to turn around the state's troubled education system, said the districts were supposed to "make sincere requests for the benefit of the students they educate, not for administrators."
"The purpose of these funds is to cover realistic and actual costs associated with school district consolidation, not 'big dreams,' " the Hartsville Republican said.
The requests represent the start of negotiations between the districts and Spearman's agency for a portion of up to $50 million set aside in the state budget.
The consolidating districts are guaranteed to split $12.5 million — the amount legislators designated to cover expenses long used as arguments against consolidation, such as equalizing teacher pay, aligning different computer systems and lowering districts' construction debts. The districts' plans seek more than twice that for those expected items, which Spearman says are the requests she'll focus on this year.
What came as a shock to state leaders were items that continued to pump money into district administrative offices — the very spending lawmakers are trying to shrink.
"The goal behind consolidation is to get more money directly into the classrooms so teachers and students have the resources they need to succeed," Gov. Henry McMaster's spokesman, Brian Symmes, said. "When determining where and how this money is invested, we can’t abandon that principle."
Consolidating districts also get first dibs on $37.5 million designated to help poor districts pay for new construction or building renovations. The budget gives priority to shared high schools and career centers.
But the merging districts will have competition from other eligible poor school districts that have asked for an additional $74 million in "high priority" requests — almost double that whole pot of money. Those applications include $25 million for a career center for Laurens County's two districts, $20 million for a career center for teens in Dillon County's two districts and $10 million for a regional career center in Orangeburg County that would be shared with Calhoun County and Dorchester 4 school district students.
School superintendents in districts that could consolidate say they knew they would not get all the money they requested.
"We were told to ask for anything that might be needed," said longtime Bamberg Superintendent Phyllis Schwarting, who plans to retire at the end of the school year. "We know this is a wish list that can’t possibly be funded in totality."
Not only did Bamberg and Denmark districts seek $8.5 million for a new 15,000-square-foot administration building, their request included $100,000 to move into the new building and $150,000 for the "cost of disposing" of the old ones, located 9 miles apart.
Schwarting said they could stay in the existing buildings.
"We’re all very comfortable where we are, but it could present some problems with communication."
Aware of decades-long concerns over losing a community’s identity and sports pride in a consolidation, state officials did not ask for plans that shut down schools or give up mascots.
Yet one of the four consolidation plans submitted to the state Education Department this month proposes to do just that. The other three plans stress that attendance lines would not change.
The two districts in Hampton County — Hampton and Estill — are requesting $30 million to build a new countywide high school and career center, replacing two schools 12 miles apart that date to the 1950s and educate 790 teens total. They're also seeking $240,000 for new signs, band uniforms and athletic uniforms with the merged high school's new name.
"We're not that far apart anyway," Hampton Superintendent Ronald Wilcox said. "Both boards agree that we need a central high school for the whole county, so we’re willing to cross the lines."
His district is also the only one opting to participate in a countywide merger despite being above the sub-1,500 student target legislators aimed for consolidation.
Officials in Hampton, which has nearly 2,300 students, decided it would be best to merge with neighboring Estill, which has fewer than 700, while the state's offering aid and the autonomy to come up with their own plan.
"The state did dangle a carrot and told us there would be funds available," Wilcox said.
Barnwell and Clarendon counties each have three school districts. The districts that cover their county seats — Barnwell and Manning — both refused to participate in a countywide consolidation since, like Hampton, they're above the target student population.
But Barnwell is still hoping to benefit from the pot of money.
The three Barnwell County districts are seeking $30 million for a new, 72,000-square-foot career center in Barnwell, or, as a lower-cost option, $15 million to renovate and expand the existing facility outside Blackville to 32,000 square feet.
The merger of Barnwell County's other two districts, Blackville and Williston, would create one district that's still shy of 1,500 students. Williston's request included four options to renovate existing schools and two to build brand new ones, with the largest request putting pre-K through 12th-graders under a single roof.
Blackville, the state's smallest district of about 600 students, sought no money for construction.
"The state department said, 'Ask for the moon and stars,' " said Blackville's interim superintendent, David Corder. "Our facilities are old, but they’re in relatively good shape. Me asking for a new school in Blackville, that’s going a little overboard."